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Why Education Won't Be a 1992 Campaign Issue

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The Great Education Debate of the 1992 Presidential race was over before it began. Nobody showed up, not even an "education President'' running for re-election. The media spotlight that could have transformed school reform into a front-rank campaign issue never got a clear fix on it.

Yet the timing was ideal. In a first for modern Presidential campaigns, the schools materialized near the top of everyone's worry list. Candidates who once shunned the cant of reform became familiar with it. And at long last we didn't face a weekly lineup of foreign crises to distract us from the home front's tormenting realities.

Despite the absence of weighty debate, interest groups, handlers, and speechwriters will have served up 57 varieties of remedies for the malaises of the schools before the general election in November. They will leave us unmoved. As always, education won't wash as a prime-time, front-line campaign theme. Even the most avid political junkies will switch channels when the oratory veers in its direction. As a national political theme, the schools rate only slightly higher than the provincial elections in Manitoba.

The missed opportunity mirrors dilemmas that are both chronic and generic. After 12 years in yesterday's schools, Americans think they are experts on today's, and we don't trust politicians to fix them. We cling to the hoary cliche that decisions on education are for states and communities to make, even as President Bush's America 2000 and the sprouting national standards-testing-curriculum movements refute it daily. Applicants for public housing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are skittish about touting an encompassing federal role with its budget-stretching implications. More telling, voters who favor new educational visions are usually bored by their details and the debate that spawns them. The turnout for local school-board elections is often less than 10 percent of a community's registered voters.

These constraints reflect a fundamental apathy toward education. Other topics draw active interest. Health-insurance coverage, an issue his campaign manager called "strong enough to turn spit into gasoline,'' is credited with propelling Harris Wofford over the top in last year's Pennsylvania senatorial election. Almost any side of the economy can trigger an agitated electoral response. Foreign affairs may yet turn the tide for George Bush in 1992. But the schools, arguably our most basic public responsibility, have yet to find a permanent niche in our political mindset.

Education shows other soft spots as a campaign centerpiece. Just short of a decade into the current reform era, the handbook on school improvement is yellowing with age. Unless Chris Whittle promises to buy a few dozen urban school systems, nothing exciting is on the horizon. Television news, the citizenry's main source of information, pays only passing heed to the schools. The print media do better, but Presidential campaigns have long since become TV extravaganzas in which education is destined to remain a minor actor.

As a potential campaign issue, the America 2000 strategy for "making this land all that it should be'' doesn't have much zip to it after a year of relentless evangelism punctuated by a Congressional skewering as the race began. In hyping expectations for leadership from Washington, the Administration could also be running up against suspicions about federal intervention that it and its predecessor helped to plant. The individual pieces of the Bush-Alexander "crusade'' may merit debate, but their lack of immediacy does not point to a respectable political payoff. His bravura performance in promoting the America 2000 catechism may do more for Lamar Alexander's political future than for the nation's schools.

The pattern for 1992 has already formed. The candidates will expostulate on improving the schools, in some cases radically, though with few specifics about resources. We will hear "major'' addresses on education, but no antipodal themes will come out of them. The pundits will cover education as they always do--in a dutiful fashion innocent of context and devoid of fervor. But the drama of partisan political combat will be absent because even the most venturesome education planks will ultimately blur before the voters' eyes. Jesse Jackson's observation at a candidate's debate in 1987 still rings true: "Whoever can keep your attention during this debate on education deserves to be your next President.''

This year's education agenda lacks an ideological compass. The education-policy commentator Denis P. Doyle has chided liberals for letting conservatives seize the flag of reform. The reprimand is deserved, even in the mishmash of cross-cutting interests, people, and philosophies that marks today's educational-policy landscape. Impeccably credentialed conservatives talk up "break the mold'' schools, while card-carrying progressives debunk them as a waste of time and money. Partisans of the still-untested panacea of private-school choice populate both parties. Only over the matter of federal spending--most Democrats in favor, Republicans skeptical but pliable in an election year--is a serious gap discernible. The Great Education Debate that never was would have become a thousand points of noise.

For all of the doctrinal confusion, one dominant theme is emerging. Whether educators like it or not, and most appear unconcerned, the candidates and the popular media have bought the supposition that education is a bedrock economic issue. This version of learning in America sells uncommonly well at a time when reminders of the shortcomings of our schoolchildren are reinforced by what seem to be hourly reports of our deepening international economic crisis. That the linkage between educational achievement and global economic status remains largely unexamined counts for little in the point-making ambiance of political competition, where education is seen almost exclusively as a path to a high-skills, high-wage, high-growth national economy.

In fixing their sights on the theoretically productive but overlooked middle class, as appears to be the case this year, the candidates are bypassing core issues that desperately need airing. The name of the election game is winning. The prudent political course is thus to avoid tumbling into unwelcome and expensive commitments that are not geared to middle-class needs and values. But if national productivity is to increase, then, as the economist Lester Thurow has noted, the "bottom half'' of the population is crucial. Whatever credos the candidates may profess, the 1992 campaign will slide neatly by this fact of real-world life.

Related topics will seldom intrude into what will pass for debate on education this year. We will hear little about the shameful resegregation of schoolchildren that is worsening in plain view while mocking the laws and premises of our working democracy. Nor are today's scandalous disparities in resources among school districts likely to spur calls from the aspirants to set things straight--or even to look at the gaps. It is equally improbable that the corrosive problems of the "forgotten half,'' a population slice numbering roughly 20 million non-college-bound 16- to 24-year-olds, will even draw mention. And these are only a few of the overlooked headliners; the inside pages spill over with others.

Contemporary Presidential campaigns have a way of degenerating into abandoned chances to bring gnawing national concerns to public notice. The current one promises to be typical. Perhaps the selection of standard-bearers at the party conventions this summer will help to focus discussion, but no serious bettor would wager the grocery money on it even if the finalists in the general election are a sitting "education President'' and a devoutly pro-education governor.

The schools started this year's chase far behind economic recovery and health-care reform and somewhere in the middle of a politically lackluster pack that includes the environment, the infrastructure, and the overarching matter of which Elvis picture ought to go on a stamp. But these priorities could shift drastically with the slip of a lip. As in all Presidential campaigns, wild cards are scattered throughout the deck. This year's are marked condoms and school violence. A spare deck, unused for several years, has cards labeled prayer, Pledge of Allegiance, and quotas. All predictions are null and void if any of them get into the game.

George R. Kaplan, who writes on social and educational issues, is the author of Images of Education: The Mass Media's Version of America's Schools.

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